How can you Create a Trauma-Informed Resilient Classroom or School?

Step 1:  Focus on Student Resilience

What is student resilience?

Student Resilience is the ability to achieve positive outcomes—mentally, emotionally, socially, and spiritually despite adversity.

To focus on student resilience, start by creating a set core of values and beliefs about the children you serve.  The Circle of Courage is a model of positive youth development based on the universal principle to be emotionally healthy, all youth need a sense of belonging, mastery, independence, and generosity.

Circle of Courage

What does this look like in a school?

Belonging at school is when every student believes they are valued, seen, heard, and cared for.

Mastery at school is when every student believes they can achieve despite their challenges.

Independence at school is when every student believes they have the power to make decisions that will impact their own lives.

Generosity at school is when every student believes they have a purpose for their lives that can positively contribute to the world.

Click here for a resilience activity to help connect more with your students.

Looking to learn more about how to do this in your classroom or across your building for all students? Reach out to Starr Commonwealth today for a personalized consultation about our training and consulting services to help ensure every child learns in an environment where they can flourish!

learned helplessness in students child with shadow of strong person

Learned Helplessness in Students

Learned helplessness in students is a psychological phenomenon in which children begin to feel as though they have no control over the events or circumstances happening to them, which can manifest within in the classroom. This can lead to feelings of despair, hopelessness, and a lack of motivation. For students who are experiencing the effects of trauma or toxic stress, the signs of learned helplessness can be exacerbated even further.

Recent research has shown that there is a strong connection between learned helplessness and trauma. Trauma and toxic stress can lead to a feeling of helplessness, as individuals may feel as though they have no control over the traumatic event that occurred, was witnessed, or perceived. This feeling of helplessness can then lead to the development of learned helplessness, as individuals begin to believe that they are unable to change or improve their circumstances.

How to overcome learned helplessness in the classroom

Teachers should look for several signs of learned helplessness in students in order to identify who may be struggling. Some of the signs that teachers should look for include (and how to help the child):

  • Lack of motivation: Students who have learned helplessness may lack motivation and engagement in the classroom. They may avoid participating in class discussions or completing homework assignments. Try breaking work into smaller “bite-sized” pieces that you’re confident the student can achieve, or work with the student to find a method or platform for participation that ensures both the student’s sense of safety and an accurate representation of the student’s learning.
  • Low self-esteem: Students with learned helplessness may have low self-esteem and a negative self-image. They may be critical of themselves and their abilities. Make sure to find opportunities for praise to reinforce all that the student can do well.
  • Difficulty with problem-solving: Students with learned helplessness may have difficulty solving problems and may give up easily when faced with a challenge. Establishing effective routines can be a great solution to this issue. By defining routine as wide-ranging as daily class schedules to the steps to solving math equations, we can help students perceive any situation as a series of steps to work on one at a time.
  • Avoiding challenges: Students with learned helplessness may avoid challenging tasks or activities in the classroom. They may prefer to stick to what is familiar and comfortable, rather than taking risks and trying new things. When we can understand the benefit of failure, we’re more likely to test ourselves. So, celebrate failures! [Also, the Circle of Courage’s universal need of mastery is a perfect topic to explore to begin embracing challenge.]
  • Passive attitude: Students with learned helplessness may adopt a passive attitude, and may not take responsibility for their own learning. They may also blame external factors for their failure rather than taking responsibility for their actions. This is another area where the Circle of Courage can overcome helplessness. Not only does proper development of mastery help with passive attitudes, focusing on student generosity (specifically, sharing skills with one another that can help with class activities) can build a sense of community and healthy accountability to their peers.

It's important to note that these signs can be indicative of other issues as well, therefore, teachers should be cautious when making a diagnosis of learned helplessness in students. If you notice signs of learned helplessness in students, it's important to reach out and provide them with the support and resources they need.

Promoting Inclusion in the Classroom through Generosity

Promoting inclusion in the classroom is crucial for creating an equitable, safe learning environment for all students. The good news is that intentional inclusion is instrumental to being trauma-informed. The key lies within the Circle of Courage. This model for positive youth development provides four critical areas to explore, but for now let’s focus on the universal need of generosity. By focusing on and practicing generosity, we can create a more inclusive classroom, where students feel a sense of belonging, can gain mastery over the material and develop independence. In this blog post, we will explore how incorporating acts of generosity in the classroom can promote a more inclusive environment for all students.

Strategies for inclusion and generosity in the classroom

Effective efforts to teach generosity don’t need to be grand or complicated. When properly structured and monitored by teachers, it can be as simple as everyday group work! Help your students enrich their sense of generosity with these fun activities:

  • Collaborative Learning: Create small groups of students with diverse backgrounds (which can be as simple as their background in your classroom—what skills can you pair/group together who don’t normally interact to accomplish a challenge together?) Encourage students to share their unique perspectives and skills, and to rely on one another for support. Provide an opportunity for groups to share what they appreciated about what others brought to their team.
  • Random Acts of Kindness Challenge: Encourage students to perform random acts of kindness towards their classmates, such as leaving a positive note on a classmate's desk, offering to help a struggling student with their work, or sharing materials with someone who forgot theirs at home. Students should be intentional about helping those who they don’t regularly play or study with. Have students reflect on the impact of their actions and discuss as a class how these small acts of generosity can promote a culture of inclusion and belonging in the classroom.
  • Generosity Day: Set a day of the week where students can come in and share something with their classmates, it can be an item or a skill. Incorporating items/skills important to family traditions or cultural background can help further promote inclusion. Exit notes for the day can challenge students to celebrate their favorite contribution and what they learned about their fellow student who presented it.
  • Empathetic Icebreakers: A tried and true staple throughout classrooms, icebreakers are fun—and can be powerful tools for connection. Challenge your students by designing your icebreaking topics around opportunities for inclusion. From familial trivia to hopes and dreams for their futures, these icebreaker discussions can peel back guarded layers of students to celebrate their true selves with their peers. As students get to know each other better, the icebreakers can shift to challenge students to seek out and compliment students for their uniqueness or perhaps what they’ve noticed that student does well.
  • READ!: There are thousands of age-appropriate books to help students be more sensitive about their classmates’ lived experiences. A quick Google search for “books to teach diversity and generosity” is a great starting point.

No matter the activity, it’s critical that teachers set up their students for success. Use your knowledge of each kid that the rest of the class might not have that will help celebrate their skillset. Afterward, always be intentional about debriefing activities to gauge what impact these activities might have on your class and adjust moving forward.

What other activities do you find help students explore their sense of generosity through an inclusive lens? No matter your approach, the first step should always be the bond formed between the teacher and every student. You can learn more about breaking down barriers to learning and relationships through 10 Steps to Create a Trauma-Informed Resilient School.

Intentional Connection Over the Holiday Break

We are quickly approaching the final days of instruction for many before schools close for holiday breaks. A lot of teachers and students are looking forward to a couple weeks of rest, relaxation and some physically distanced fun. However, breaks from school for some students bring stress. This is because when school is not in session students lack opportunities to interact with caring adults and peers, and have little or no consistency to help structure their days. This is difficult, especially for traumatized children who thrive when they experience predictability and connection. So, let’s set everyone up for success!

For those teachers and students who enjoy breaks – relish in every moment!

  • Get outside on sunny and warm(er) days
  • Connect with family and friends outside or virtually
  • Take a nap
  • Read a book
  • Catch up on movies and shows

For those who need consistency and connection, educators might try one of two of the following strategies

  • Schedule email messages to be sent a few times over break to students who benefit from interactions
  • Invite students to a “challenge” where they write down one thing every day that made them feel happy – tell them you will check in with them after the break for a full report.
  • Take some time in class this week to create a sample “holiday break” schedule for students where they identify two or three things they will do each day (e.g., play outside, read for 15 minutes, connect with a friend).
  • Remind them that even when you do not see them in class or virtually, you are thinking about them and will excited to see them when you both return from the break.

8 Quick Ways for Youth to Practice Gratitude

Gratitude is thankful appreciation and acknowledgement of the goodness a person receives or experiences in their life. In positive psychology research, gratitude is strongly and consistently associated with greater well-being. Gratitude helps people feel more positive emotions, relish good experiences, improve their health, deal with adversity, and build strong relationships.

Despite the solid research supporting gratitude, when life is challenging it becomes more natural for many of us to focus on problems; what we aren’t feeling or experiencing; things we don’t have - than it is to practice gratitude. But, intentional and simple gratitude practice will allow you and the youth in your life will reap all of the benefits being grateful has to offer.

Notice. Simply notice when you are interacting with another person who makes you smile or feel good. This can be on the phone or other virtual platform.

Say thank you. Verbally say thank you to others for their smile, their friendship, helping you, making you dinner, etc. Say thank you to yourself for carrying on even when you are tired, for taking the time to practice gratitude even if it doesn’t come easily.

Write a thank you text, email or note. Take a minute or two to send a text, email or thank you note to someone who has made a positive impact on your life. Instead of just thinking about it, reach out and let them know.

Breathe. Take one deep breath and be thankful for the air you breathe and how it fills your lungs.

Acknowledge a positive experience. Acknowledge a positive experience by writing it down in a notebook or by telling someone about your experience.

List your VIP(s). Make a list of the very important people in your life. You may have one or you may have many. Write down their names and be thankful they are in your life.

One-a-day. At the end of the day, write down (or even think of) one thing that happened or one thing you experienced that made you grateful.

Gratitude Jar. Find a jar (or box, basket, bowl) and ask your family or friends to all identify one thing or person they feel gratitude for – and add everyone’s gratitude to the jar. Once filled, take out one piece of paper at a time and everyone can share their contribution.

Expressing gratitude is crucial for professionals as well! It is the first line of defense against compassion fatigue, vicarious trauma, and burnout. My colleague and Starr's Senior Trainer Erin Madden Reed explains this important connection in Practicing Resilience: Essential Self-Care Strategies for Helping Professionals. Watch below and follow the links in the description for the course page.

Learn more with these offerings from Starr Commonwealth

Building Mastery in Your Classroom

Mastery is reaching our potential with supports. Mastery is NOT perfection.

The second universal need according to the Circle of Courage resilience model is MASTERY. When we talk about mastery we are not talking about perfection but rather the engagement in activities and tasks with adequate supports in place to allow ourselves to feel good about both our efforts and accomplishments. We all require various levels of support to reach our unique potential. Without support, there is often frustration, giving up easily and not enjoying the learning process. This is true with new rules, academics, sports, hobbies and even social situations.
Any person, of any age, will feel empowered and motivated when given experiences and opportunities to engage in activities that bring them connection and joy and learn new ideas and concepts that have meaning to their lives. When activities and learning are coupled with encouragement, patience and support, resilience builds.

  • When teaching in-person or in a virtual classroom, some students may need additional (or even ongoing) verbal or visual reminders about rules and etiquette.
  • Developmental age rather than chronological age should always be considered to set students up for success. If a student is developmentally more of an 8 year old than his chronological age 12, what might you modify or provide as a support to help him stay engaged in your lesson?
  • Scaffolding new ideas and concepts with a breakdown of steps helps.
  • Peer to peer or small group discussions allow for both connection and collaboration.
  • Provide real life examples in your teaching.

What are some of the ways you offer support to your students to set them up for success? Much like the Belonging staff self-assessment, Starr Commonwealth offers an assessment to gauge how you are building Mastery in your classroom. Download your free copy below!

Download your Mastery self-assessment

Learn more about building Mastery in your classroom with my colleague L. Kathryn Hart in Starr's course Healing Trauma & Restoring Resilience in Schools.

Our full Circle of Courage staff self-assessment is featured in Starr's 10 Steps to Create a Trauma-Informed, Resilient School. This resource provides the foundation to empower students, staff, and family. Not only does 10 Steps feature easy to implement steps, but includes case studies, worksheets, and behavior intervention forms. Purchase today and save 50%!
Claim your limited time offer!

Fostering Connections through Who I Am Worksheets

School connectedness is a significant protective factor for all students in preventing substance abuse, violence, absenteeism, suicide emotional problems and eating disorders. Students who feel connected to their school are also likely to have better academic achievement. Now, more than ever – even in a virtual setting, child caring adults must foster connections. Connection is made through ongoing and repetitive moment-to-moment interactions school professionals have with their students. For some, the guide of 5:1 noticing is useful. Aim for at least five positive interactions to every one corrective interaction with each student per day. Noticing comes in many forms:

  • Greet the student by name.
  • Praise for participation.
  • Acknowledgment of character strengths.
  • Gratitude for kindness or helpful interactions between yourself and student or student and peers.
  • Checking-in: “How is your family doing?”
  • Friendly gesture like a wave or head nod.

This may seem like a simple intervention strategy but it is powerful. Every interaction we have with a student matters because it provides an opportunity to promote a sense of safety and engagement.

To take fostering connection with your students a step further, you can use the worksheet Who I Am available to download below. Students can be asked to complete this worksheet and it can then be shared in classroom meetings, office hours and small group sessions with students and their peers.

Download the Who am I worksheet

Fostering connections is Step 3 in Starr's 10 Steps to Create a Trauma-Informed, Resilient School. This resource provides the foundation to empower students, staff, and family. Not only does 10 Steps feature easy to implement steps, but includes case studies, worksheets, and behavior intervention forms. Purchase today and save 50%!

Claim your limited time offer!

More related resources from Starr Commonwealth

Are You Building a Sense of Belonging for Your Students?

In Native American and First Nations cultures, significance was nurtured in communities of belonging. Lakota anthropologist Ella Deloria described the core value of belonging in these simple words: “Be related, somehow, to everyone you know.” Treating others as kin forges powerful social bonds that draw all into relationships of respect. Theologian Marty observed that throughout history the tribe, not the nuclear family, always ensured the survival of the culture. Even if parents died or were not responsible, the tribe was always there to nourish the next generation.

In the classroom, ensuring a sense of belonging for each and every student is critical for success. While this theory is easy to grasp, the reality of developing that sense of belonging isn’t always as clear. To support educators in their everyday practices, Starr has developed a simple self-assessment to help you reach your universal needs goals. Below, Dr. Soma explains the self-assessment tool in our latest Back to School During a Pandemic episode. Click below the video to download your belonging self-assessment. You can print it out, post it around your desk, and ask yourself each week how well you did building belonging!

Download your belonging self-assessment

Our full Circle of Courage staff self-assessment is featured in Starr's 10 Steps to Create a Trauma-Informed, Resilient School. This resource provides the foundation to empower students, staff, and family. Not only does 10 Steps feature easy to implement steps, but includes case studies, worksheets, and behavior intervention forms. Purchase today and save 50%!

Claim your limited time offer!

More related resources from Starr Commonwealth

Developed by Starr’s 2nd President, Dr. Larry K. Brendtro (PhD), and his colleagues, the Circle of Courage® provides the philosophical foundation for Starr’s resilience-focused approach to working with children, families, and communities, in addition to the work of Reclaiming Youth International.